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Cleaning up Lincoln Yards and General Iron will transform Chicago’s north branch

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A closer look at the ongoing efforts to turn an industrial wasteland into a mixed-use megaproject

An aerial image of trucks and machinery excavating a dirt lot along a river. A row of tall buildings is visible in the distance.
Crews perform remediation work at the former Finkl Steel complex along the Chicago River’s north branch.
Photo by RW Collins, courtesy Sterling Bay

The massive Lincoln Yards development might be years or even decades from completion, but the project is already having a positive impact as crews clean up the 55-acre formerly industrial brownfield site.

Developer Sterling Bay is working to reverse the environmental impact of more than a century of use by steel mills, tanneries, recyclers, and other heavy industries that once occupied the riverfront between Lincoln Park and Bucktown. And, with a plan to clean up and eventually close the nearby General Iron scrap yard moving forward, the future of Chicago’s north branch corridor looks bright.

Cleaning up Lincoln Yards is no small task

Everything about Lincoln Yards is big, and that too applies to ongoing efforts to mitigate lingering pollution and other contaminants. So far, Sterling Bay has remediated 25,000 tons of polluted soil and 200,000 gallons of contaminated water, recycled 30,000 tons of concrete, and removed 30 underground storage tanks containing petroleum products.

The effort has been underway since November 2017—more than a year before Sterling Bay won zoning approval for its massive 14.5 million-square-foot mixed-use project. The work is mostly complete on the parcel’s northern portion and will continue on the site’s southern end in the coming months.

According to the developer, the process meets or exceeds the state’s environmental requirements and is being completed to “residential standards” to ensure the safety of the surrounding communities and neighbors.

Additionally, existing utility infrastructure will be brought up to modern standards for efficiency. The changes will help Lincoln Yards achieve a targeted LEED for Neighborhood Development (LEED ND) certification across the entire project.

A piece of heavy machinery sitting next to a riverbank lifts an oblong rusty storage tank out of the ground.
A tank containing petroleum products is removed from the site.
Photo by V3 Companies, courtesy Sterling Bay

The developer is footing the bill

Although much has been argued about Lincoln Yards’ controversial deal for $1.3 billion tax increment financing (TIF) struck between Sterling Bay and City Hall in the final days of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration, the environmental remediation is not TIF eligible. It will instead come out of the developer’s pocket.

“Sterling Bay and its partners have—at their own expense—spent $6.2 million on remediation efforts to date,” a company spokesperson tells Curbed Chicago. “An estimated $3.2 million will be spent in continued remediation, again at the expense of Sterling Bay and its partners.”

The developer will, however, receive reimbursement through the city’s TIF program for infrastructure improvements planned for the sprawling north branch property such as new roads, bridges, river walls, and an eastward extension of The 606 trail.

Earlier this summer, Sterling Bay brought new soccer fields and an alphabet-themed series of murals to the Lincoln Yards site. The first new buildings at Lincoln Yards are planned at the parcel’s northern edge, near the C.H. Robinson headquarters.

General Iron cleans up its act

As remediation continues at Lincoln Yards, neighboring General Iron is being held accountable before it leaves for a new location on Chicago’s Southeast side at the end of 2020. For years, the scrap yard and metal recycler drew objections from nearby residents who said the facility was responsible for hazardous pollution including metallic dust, oily films, and acrid smells.

Alderman Brian Hopkins worked with Mayor Lightfoot to negotiate the terms of General Iron’s move from 1909 N. Clifton Avenue as well as enact a legally binding agreement requiring the company to comply with federal and state environmental regulations in the meantime.

“[The agreement] means an emission reduction of at least 81% of volatile organic compounds and complete containment of fugitive particulate matter within the site,” said the 2nd Ward alderman in a recent email to residents. “Ongoing monitoring will be conducted to ensure compliance.”

What’s next for General Iron?

It’s unclear what comes next for the 21.5-acre General Iron site. While some neighbors and local officials have advocated turning the parcel into a public park dubbed the North Branch Park Preserve, developers—and possibly Sterling Bay—are likely to take a hard look at such a large site so close to Lincoln Yards.

The General Iron land could fetch as much as $100 million by some industry estimates. Either way, the site will need significant environmental remediation of its own before it finds a new use.

“Neither Sterling Bay nor its joint venture partners own or control the General Iron property,” a company spokesperson tells Curbed. “We’re excited to be doing our part to revitalize the property we control along the north branch of the Chicago River into an active, healthy waterfront experience for all Chicagoans to enjoy.”

When eventually complete, the Lincoln Yards development will support an estimated 23,000 jobs, 6,000 residential units, and 21 acres of publicly accessible open space.

“We are thrilled to see the land along the north branch cleaned up,” said Margaret Frisbie, executive director of nonprofit Friends of the Chicago River, in a statement. “Creating a clean slate is a huge step forward in fulfilling Sterling Bay’s commitment to transform the old industrial corridor into nearly a mile of natural riverbanks and open space that will provide places for people to play and wildlife to thrive.”